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Why Biotech Food Labeling Is Met with Resistance

May 15, 2012
In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of new discussion around the biotech labeling debate.  On May 10, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) released its latest “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology” survey, which showed that very few Americans cite biotechnology as an information need on food labels.

LabelEarlier this month, the California Right to Know initiative announced at various rallies held around the state that it had collected the prerequisite number of signatures to get its proposal on the November ballot. The initiative would require biotech foods (also known as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs) and foods containing GMO ingredients to be labeled.

A number of mainstream media outlets reported on the California activity. Andrea Billups’ piece in the Washington Times and Jack Kaskey’s article for Bloomberg nicely sum up why the broader agriculture and food manufacturing community is opposed to the measure:

The California campaign is the best chance for biotech labeling in the United States after the failure of similar bills in 19 states and the rejection of a petition to the Food and Drug Administration last month.

But the California voter initiative is likely to meet fierce resistance from agricultural and business interests, who predict it will prove costly both for growers and consumers. Opponents warn the measure constitutes a “right to sue” initiative that will undercut sales of numerous food items that have been consumed safely for years.

Monsanto opposes labeling modified ingredients because the move risks “misleading consumers into thinking products are not safe when in fact they are,” said Sara Miller, a Monsanto spokeswoman.

The initiative is a “back door” way to hurt the $13.3 billion biotech crop industry, according to Richard Lobb, managing director for the Council for Biotechnology Information. The Washington-based council represents Monsanto and five other biotech-seed developers. “They basically are trying to scare consumers through labeling,” Lobb said in a telephone interview. “The obvious objective is to push biotechnology out of the market altogether.”

Biotech labeling has never been endorsed by the FDA. The agency says crops engineered to tolerate herbicides or produce insecticide pose no greater health risks than conventional foods.

The California Farm Bureau opposes the ballot initiative, along with the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Seed Association, the California Grain and Feed Association, and California Women for Agriculture.

Jamie Johansson, vice president of the California Farm Bureau and an olive farmer from Oroville, Calif., said the initiative puts an enormous burden on growers and packagers, and it prevents any processed food from being labeled as “natural.”

An apple, for example, wouldn’t require a label, but it would if it were ground into apple sauce. The same for almonds: They are fine picked raw, but ground into almond butter, even without any other ingredients, they would not pass the test under provisions of the proposed label law.

Food labels should be reserved for “critically important food safety and nutritional information,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes the California initiative.

The California proposal would mandate a label for foods in which more than 0.5 percent of the product is a genetically modified ingredient. The proposal exempts meat, dairy foods and beer.

The label “would be the equivalent of a skull and crossbones” that would drive away customers and force food producers to stop using engineered ingredients, Joseph Mercola, the labeling initiative’s leading funder with $800,000 in donations, said. Mercola is an osteopath who promotes natural remedies at his clinic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, called the labeling proposal “completely blown out of context.”

“To me, the issue with this as a scientist is you are focusing on the labeling of process rather than the labeling of product,” she said. “The issue for safety should be on the product itself if you are going to look at risk-assessment and whether something should be of concern to the consumer.”

“You don’t have a label on sausage telling you how they are made and you probably wouldn’t want one. For biotech products, the issues are an individual’s right to know. If you were going to ask to supply all information made on a processed crop, you’d have a whole encyclopedia attached to everything on your grocery shelf.”

Chris Shaw, a New York-based analyst, said labels identifying genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, won’t change most consumers’ buying decisions. “People who are buying Oreos aren’t going to care if there is GMO soybean oil in there,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be a marginal group of people that will care.”

That’s the consensus of consumers who participated in the IFIC survey.  Seventy-six percent of respondents could not think of any additional information (other than what is already required) that they wish to see on food labels.  Of the 24 percent who wanted more information, only 3 percent (or about five people and less than 1 percent of all surveyed) wanted more information about biotechnology. In addition, 87 percent of Americans say they have not taken any action out of concern about biotechnology.

IFIC President and CEO David Schmidt said the strength of the methodology used in the IFIC survey sets it apart from other surveys looking at food technology issues.

“In the public landscape, we often see polling that tries to provoke or frighten people into giving a certain desired response,” Schmidt said.  “We don’t believe in leading consumers to any conclusion.  We believe our open-ended methodology used at the beginning of our survey provides a more accurate view of concerns on Americans’ minds, and the survey is the most objective and long-term publicly available data set on U.S. consumer attitudes toward food and agricultural biotechnology.”

The survey, formerly the “IFIC Survey of Consumer Attitudinal Trends toward Food Biotechnology,” is part of a series that has been conducted since 1997.